Language

A dash of hiragana in the ‘foreign’ soup

by Hannah Kunert and Peter Backhaus

Contributing Writers

It’s something like a convenience store, and almost as convenient if it weren’t closed at night. In exchange it’s clearly lower priced than your local 7-Eleven or Family Mart, and offers a larger assortment of foods. Not quite as much as an ordinary supermarket though, so it’s really neither one nor the other. It’s somewhere in between, and this is also reflected in its name: まいばすけっと (mai basuketto).

The name is based on the English words “my basket,” obviously, and comes as close as it gets to the original. What’s remarkable about it is that it is not written in katakana, the default script for Western loanwords, but in hiragana, which, in combination with kanji, is normally reserved for indigenous Japanese vocabulary.

The result is something that’s both foreign and familiar, and this is most likely the intended effect. The Aeon Co., Ltd., which runs the My Basket stores, is not the first to harness this deviation from common script choice rules (though with its 500 stores in the metropolitan region it is perhaps doing it most visibly). In fact, loanwords in hiragana have been around for quite some time.

To start with a few well-documented cases, たばこ (tabako, tobacco), derived from the Portuguese “tabaco,” is often seen in hiragana, along with a few other Portuguese-based comforts such as ぱん (pan, bread), てんぷら (tenpura, tempura) and the かすてら (kasutera, castella) sponge cake. As these words became part of the Japanese language during the Edo Period (1603-1868), when the rules for script use were not so defined, it is perhaps not surprising to see them in hiragana today. And, like My Basket, they also tread the line between native and foreign, being things that were once unknown in Japan but are now firmly rooted in Japanese culture.

A similar phenomenon can be observed with the names for once “exotic” fruits and vegetables that have now become part and parcel of the domestic diet. Examples are とまと (tomato, tomato), きゃべつ (kyabetsu, cabbage), れもん (remon, lemon) and ばなな (banana, banana). This is not to deny that the default script for these words is still katakana. However, a hiragana spelling gives them that certain touch (not to say, taste) that makes them appeal to Japanese consumers.

The same holds for a number of other things, edible or not. Take the tremendously popular Hello Kitty product line that includes anything from cookies to underwear. Even though both “Hello” and “Kitty” are unmistakably derived from English, you will often find them written in hiragana, はろうきてぃ (harou kiti), rather than in the more angular katakana spelling ハローキティ, specifically when the character is wearing a kimono or bears some other reference to Japanese culture.

Note that, as with the aforementioned iconic feline, the bar used to indicate long vowels (ハロー) can be replaced in hiragana by an extra vowel character (はろう). Both strategies may even be combined, as in the name of the comedy duoさまぁ~ず (samaāzu), derived from the English word “summers.” A vee-ery long vowel indeed.

As these examples suggest, hiragana loanwords are particularly common in contexts that prioritize creativity and word play, such as product and business names, magazines and advertisements. Parallel examples of nonstandard spelling can be seen in many commercial names in English, for instance Krispy Kreme and Mister Minit, where they have the same playful, eye-catching function.

An entirely different motivation for preferring hiragana over katakana may be to create a word boundary in a term that would otherwise be a dull string of katakana. Examples include the assisted living facility らいふアシスト (raifu ashisuto, Life Assist), or the children’s bath toy ころころスプラッシュあいらんど (korokoro supurasshu airando, Splash Island). On the other hand, we also find contrary examples where hiragana is used to erase a word boundary, as though to make the foreign and the domestic look less disparate. A case in point is a product called いろいろすーぷ (iroiro sūpu), a “varieties soup” where the word derived from English “soup” is graphically aligned with the indigenousいろいろ (iroiro, various). Must be a soup that suits Japanese palates very well.

An important general point to remember about hiragana loanwords, particularly for non-native users, is that certain types of texts are more suitable candidates for hiragana than others. This is why you are unlikely to receive an email from your boss about a pending りぽーと (ripōto, report) or an upcoming みいてぃんぐ (miitingu, meeting) anytime soon — and had better not spell it that way in a message to him or her.

Hannah Kunert has extensively studied the phenomenon of loanwords in hiragana. Her PhD thesis on the topic is available at independent.academia.edu/Kunert.